Earlier this year on January 5th, the Biden administration signed the Butterfield Overland National Historic Trail Designation Act into law. This designates a trail extending approximately 3,292 miles long following the route operated by the Butterfield Overland Mail Company from 1858-1861 (National Parks Service Park Planning, SCVN). The route was also known as the Ox-Bow Route, due to the route’s bow shape as it transported mail and passengers between the eastern end points of St. Louis, Missouri, and Memphis, Tennessee, also extending westward through the states of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, to the western end point of San Francisco, California (See Figure 1, National Parks Service). The trail and route passed through the Antelope Valley area(See Figure 2).
Figure 1: Historic map of the Butterfield Overland Trail with route shown in black dashed line. (Source:Wikimedia)
Figure 2: Butterfield Overland Trail Map, Detail of California Section (Source: SCV News).
The mail was carried along this trail by horse-drawn wagons (See Figure 3 for illustrationof the Overland Mail Company from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, October 23, 1858). They would enter the Santa Clarita Valley and go onward to the Antelope Valley from the south through the Newhall Pass through what would later become Beale’s Cut in the 1860s (See Figure 4 for an image of Beale’s Cut from MOAH’s Collections). “From there, the route continued approximately up today’s Newhall Avenue-Railroad-Bouquet Canyon Road, out Seco Canyon and up San Francisquito Canyon to Elizabeth Lake” (SCV News).
Figure 3: The Butterfield Overland Mail from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, October 23, 185 (Source: California State Parks).
Figure 4: Clarence Gerblick at Beale’s Cut (Source: MOAH Collections).
The trail was deemed “nationally significant in American history” by the National Parks Service “because it represents a great idea or ideal of the American people. Today, “the Butterfield” is a name that is well known to many Americans. Additionally, the trail is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad national patterns of American history because the route fulfilled a critical need to tie disparate parts of the country together and satisfied the need to have an overland route that ran entirely within the continent’s borders” (National Parks Service Special Resource Study).
The trail also offers potential for public recreational use and opportunities for tourism along its route, including several state parks, historic sites, and museums in California such as Anza Borrego Desert State Park in Borrego Springs, Fort Tejon State Historic Site in Lebec, Vallecito Regional Park in Julian, and the Wells Fargo History Museum in Los Angeles (National Parks Service Special Resource Study).
During the beginning of the 19th century, the United States was greatly expanding in its territory and in population. In the early 1840s, Americans began to move into the newly acquired western territory to settle in Oregon and California. The large influx of immigrants increased pressure on the US Post Office Department to meet the people’s transportation demands.
In 1857, Congress attached an amendment to the annual post office appropriations bill that authorized a stagecoach line that would connect California with the Mississippi River valley (National Parks Service Special Resource Study). Congress tasked the US Post Office Department to find a contractor to create the route and a transportation system that would be ready to go within just a year of signing the contract.
On September 16, 1857, John W. Butterfield, a friend of President James Buchanan from Utica New York, won and signed a six-year contract with the US Post Office Department. The Overland Mail Company was created and running after a year of construction. In order to make certain southern states happy, the contract was required to include “a route from St. Louis and Memphis, Tennessee, converging at Little Rock, Arkansas. Thence, via Preston, Texas, or as nearly so as may be found advisable, to the best point of crossing the Rio Grande River above El Paso, and not far from Fort Fillmore (See Figure 5 for an image of Butterfield). Thence along the new road being opened and constructed under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, to Fort Yuma, California. Thence through the best passes and along the best valleys for safe and expeditious staging to San Francisco” (National Parks Service Special Resource Study). Northerners were not happy with the southern route, but it was claimed that the Butterfield Overland Trail route was chosen to avoid bad northern winter snow and that Butterfield’s trail could offer a route that was “safe, comfortable, and certain during every season of the year” (National Parks Service Special Resource Study). The Overland Mail Company would later consolidate in 1866 with Wells Fargo’s carriers until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 (SVC News).
Figure 5: John W. Butterfield (Source: Wikimedia)
The recently passed Butterfield Overland National Historic Trail Designation Act does not provide any funding for route markers for the trail, though this may happen in the future with subsequent development proposals. However, the recognition and designation of a National Historic Trail so close to home alone is a great achievement!
Leon Worden, SCVNEWS.com. “Historic Wagon Route Through SCV Gets Its Due”. January 8, 2023. (SCVNews.com | Historic Wagon Route Through SCV Gets Its Due | 01-08-2023).
Mary A. Helmich, Interpretation and Education Division, California State Parks. “Stage Styles-Not All Were Coaches!”. 2008 (Stage Styles - Not All Were Coaches (ca.gov)).
National Park Service, (PEPC) Planning, Environment & Public Comment. “Butterfield Overland Trail Special Resource Study” (ParkPlanning - Butterfield Overland Trail Special Resource Study (nps.gov)).
National Park Service, US Department of the Interior. Butterfield Overland Trail National Historical Trail Special Resource Study. May 2018.
Wikimedia. Butterfield-Overland.gif. John W. Butterfield Image.(https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Butterfield-Overland.gif).